Twenty-one Years of Cal Swimming (Before then, some changes to Now and Beyond) by Nort Thornton (2000)


Last season, California men’s swimming coach Nort Thornton celebrated his silver anniversary in fine fashion. Thornton, the dean of the Pacific-10 Conference swimming coaches, had plenty to revel about in his 25th season leading the Golden Bears as Cal finished with a 9-2 dual meet record, a second-place finish at the Pacific-10 Conference Championship and a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championship. Along the way, the Bears came within eight points of ending Stanford’s 17-year hold on the Pac-10 Championship, his swimmers won four individual titles and one relay title at the Pac-10 meet, and junior Bart Kizierowski captured the NCAA title in the 100 free. It all added up to Thornton being named 1999 Pac-10 Coach of the Year, his fourth conference coach of the year honor since he won the award three years in a row from 1978-1980.  With an impressive 183-73 (.715) career dual meet record, it is a credit to Thornton’s recruiting and coaching ability that the Bears are consistently in a position to compete for the national crown. For nearly three decades, he has cultivated squads that combine some of the top local California talent with national and international blue chippers. Thornton’s office is a testimony to his coaching ability with Olympic banners, photos of world record holders, NCAA championship trophies and mementos that span through his long and illustrious career. The veteran coach was honored for all of his accomplishments in May of 1995 with his inclusion into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  Thornton, 66, graduated from San Jose State in 1956 with a degree in education and later earned his master’s degree from Stanford. Thornton and his wife, Carla, have three sons, Richard (42), and twins Marc and Gregg(39).



In 1979, at the ASCA Clinic in Seattle, Washington, I spoke on “The Cal-Berkeley Program.” And now, twenty-one years later in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the 2000 ASCA Clinic, I am again speaking on “The Cal Program.” I am very pleased to be invited back – twenty-one years later.


Much has changed, but some things remain the same.


My background is as follows: I was born in a Stanford University hospital, and the first place I went from there was the Stanford swimming pool.  My father was the Stanford coach at the time, and he took me by to show me to the team.


I was a high school swimmer and water polo player, at Palo Alto High School, then went on to San Jose State to continue swimming and water polo.  While I was there I tried to become an architect, a commercial artist and eventually a physical education and coaching major.  My first job was teaching and coaching water polo, wrestling and swimming at Los Altos High School.  Next, I moved to Foothill College, a two-year community college in Los Altos Hills.  I taught physical education and coached water polo and swimming there from 1961 to 1974.  In ’74 I moved to Cal and have completed twenty-six years as men’s swimming coach.  It took 18 years to prepare for the opportunity to see if I could successfully coach at the NCAA Division I level.


When I arrived at Berkeley in 1974, it was primarily known as a water polo school, having not scored a single point in the NCAA swimming championships in the 1973 season.  Peter Cutino was a full-time physical education instructor, the water polo coach in the fall and summer and the swimming coach in the spring.  Pete actually has an excellent swimming mind, but he just ran out of enthusiasm by the end of the year.  He convinced our athletic director, Dave Maggard, to split the positions and bring in a swimming coach.  At our first team meeting, we had more than seventy-five people come out to see what I was all about.  I must have scared the hell out of them, because by the end of the season, we were down to thirty.  Most of the swimmers who were there loved the attention they were finally getting.  A couple of seniors agreed to stay away and keep their scholarships – our goal was to make the top twenty at the NCAAs.  Remember, we didn’t have anybody qualify the year before.  To make a long story short, we came in fourteenth and everybody got thrown in the pool.  I don’t think that anyone but us knew why we were so happy with fourteenth place.


From there, we went to eleventh, eighth, third and then first, in 1979 and again in 1980.  During those years, we were very fortunate to have recruited some outstanding young men and athletes.  It all started with a local swimmer named Peter Rocca – the national high school backstroke record-holder.  The truth is, we bought our house in his high school district so my son Richard could swim with him and I could get to know him better for a recruiting edge.


Then we added Graham Smith, a breaststroker and the world record holder in the 200 Individual Medley; Par Arvidsson, the world-record holder in the in the 100 Butterfly; Pelle Holmertz, an Olympic bronze medalist and NCAA champion in the 200 freestyle; Peter Szmidt, world record holder in the 400 meter freestyle; my son Richard, who made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team in the 200 freestyle; as well as a number of other talented and great young men.  We were truly blessed.


Then I got fat-headed and foolishly figured that swimmers would just walk into Cal because of the success we were having.  That turned out to be a stupid assumption, and I have been working ever since to capture some of that momentum back again.  Peter Daland, the great USC coach, once said that “success in NCAA swimming is 99 percent recruiting.” I did not believe it then, but Peter was absolutely right on.


We have had some great swimmers, namely Matt Biondi and Ugur Taner, but never the quantity of quality we had in the late seventies.  The recruiting, or lack of it, was not the only factor contributing to our lower-place finishes.  However, we were able to stay in the top ten all but a couple of the years.  I was persuaded to do some things that were not as productive as we had hoped.  A couple of the biggest mistakes were:


  1. Doing more “quality” swimming in place of the longer, easier swimming. The scientists at Berkeley were pushing more specificity of training, and I foolishly took that to mean … train more at race pace.  Well, the more and more we trained faster and faster, the slower we raced.  We about perfected failing adaptation.
  2. We spent less time out of the water, both in communicating and in our dryland speed circuit.


The speed circuit was delivered by Evan Flavell maker of the biokinetic swim bench and a genius who happened to live in Berkeley and develop a twenty-station circuit of biokinetic equipment that closely approximated all the swimming movements.  The purpose is to form and train neural connections that will allow us to fire the muscles at faster speeds – to swim faster at less effort.  Evan developed a power-peak theory that took each athlete up to faster and faster settings on the equipment, until we found where they could produce their maximum amounts of power.  Then we had them work at one setting above – faster – until they produce the same amount of power at their peak – effectively moving their peak up to the faster setting.  This is very similar to what we do in the pool to increase speed.  We made a crucial discovery: Our best power producers, highest settings and highest scorers, were also our fastest swimmers, and there was only a small difference between good and great.  When we tested for maximum scores – and our effort test – we found that our conference-level swimmer could sustain maximum output for ten to twelve seconds, while our Olympic medalists could push maximally for approximately fifteen seconds.  So we concluded that to improve, we needed to be able to build up and extend our maximum output on each machine.  This is exactly what Matt Biondi did over his four years at Cal, peaking just before the Seoul games in 1988.  Bill Sweetenham, while visiting from Australia, was so impressed with the speed circuit that he brought Evan down to Canberra to install a speed circuit at the Australian Institute of Sport.  As far as I know, these are the only two such circuits in the world.


Like everything else that had worked for us back in the seventies, we tended to lose our focus and become a little complacent.  We still did these things, but without as much excitement and enthusiasm, the lack of which didn’t produce the same results.


While I was coasting, the society was changing as well, which wasn’t a good combination.  Back in the 1970s, when Vince Lombardi was everybody’s hero with his “winning is everything” philosophy, a “my way or the highway” mindset was prevalent.  Most coaches expected to just command their swimmers to do it “because I said so.” This has been – and still remains – the prevailing coaching style.


Well, I happen to coach at Cal-Berkeley, where most of our team members are fairly sharp and where free speech was founded.  They want to know why it is important to do these things.  If I can’t sell them on what we are doing, we probably should not be doing it, because I get very little real cooperation and/or success.


Do you know what?  I’m glad I have had this experience, because it serves me very well for our culture today.


I believe that a culture’s sports and games mirror the culture’s structure and values.  For example, football equals aggression and territorial war, basketball equals relentless fakery, and baseball equals obsession with records and categories.  Even tennis began to resemble World War II, with nylon howitzers being used to serve shells down an opponent’s throat.  In golf, millions still idolize Arnold Palmer’s Army and its cavalry charge.  With running, well, most land sports are meant for running in some way.  When you take away all the complications that give them their separate characteristics, all that remains is running.  A timed run of a known length provides an unarguable measure of form, physical conditioning and willpower.  It cannot be charmed, cajoled or cheated.  It is just you and the clock.


What about swimming?  Where does our activity fit into the sporting culture?  It has been said by some that our bodies and brains were born in the sea and that we return to water, not to rediscover but to re-own our oceans.  It is said that we re-enter the viscera of the planet to remember again the forgotten depths within ourselves.


How long ago did man leave the water, if at all?


There are theories that we evolved directly from some seafaring mammals rather than tree dwellers.  Our blood itself and all of the liquids -within us share the sea’s saltiness, and humans have attempted to return to the sea from which we may have come since the earliest of times.  Our ancestors dove for food beneath the sea long before they learned to cultivate crops on land.  Remains of prehistoric finds contain shells from creatures that only lived on the ocean floor.  All through history, dating back as far as 4500 B.C., shells and under-sea tales have been found and mentioned in classical writings.


Swimming, much like running, is the basis for all water sports.  I feel that you have one main difference: In the water, aerobic endurance in based upon breathing, but breathing must be done correctly if swimming is to be relaxed and effective.  On land, you only need to inhale.  In the water, you need to time and position yourself in such a way as to have your face above the surface of the water without adversely effecting your balance and body position.


Before we get too far away from our culture and sport, let’s look at what is going on in our country today.  The major or prototype sports are still funded very well, so they are still drawing young people into their sports.  People are looking for a pro contract and a financial windfall to set them up for life.  I’m not certain that they just love the sport as much as they love the thought of becoming a millionaire.


Look at the large movement that is extremely popular with our youth today – the “X-Games”.  Take one activity/sport from this – skateboarding.  If you look closely at a skateboarding clan, you will notice that they are very supportive of each other.  The big thing is trying, with the emphasis on the level of detail and style.  It is not timed or scored.  They are individuals being treated individually, and yet they are very helpful and supportive of each other.  There seems to be a caring and concern among the group.


This actually becomes a lifestyle – skateboarders take on their own identity.  You seldom see anything about skateboarding in the newspapers, so they have created their own style of information.  They are free of parental interference because parents do not understand the activity.  Usually the older generation thinks it is a waste of time and a menace and should be driven off the sidewalks before someone gets seriously injured.  Well, if you really want to drive skateboarding away, just do what we do with competitive swimming: Have the parents volunteer to run practice sessions, have parents run all-day competitions – where only one person can win – on the weekends and charge a membership fee to be able to participate.  Then set up time standards and judge the kids against each other every time they get on the skateboard.  Be certain there is only one “winner” and everyone else is a “loser.” Have parents pressure their children to beat the neighbors’ children, and let’s see how long skateboarding survives.  Swimming has got to be a great activity to have survived all of this.


I believe that in a successful team, the athletes need to have an ownership of the program.  They need to have a stake in the team’s success.  This is as true, if not more true, with the coaching staff.  I believe it is very important to have good leadership, both at the coaching level and at the swimmer level.  Obviously you don’t just turn over all responsibility to the swimmers.  You must select your co-coaches and swimmers who will lead very carefully, then sell them on the core ideas you believe are critical.  You then give them a free reign to get it done in their own best way that they can accomplish the team goals.  It should be noted that everyone on the coaching staff can and should contribute to establishing the final plan – the party line.  It is okay to discuss and even argue your points in closed coaches’ meetings, but when you leave the room, everyone is solidly in support of the decision, whether you believe it or not.


Next, you need to determine which of your athletes are your best leaders, make them captains and get them on your side to help sell your philosophy.  If they are leaders and they aren’t helping you, they will be hurting you.  Once your key players are sold and solidly involved in the program, you are 99 percent there.


At Cal we have a tremendous alumni support group for aquatics.  A number of them have created an endowment, which gives us financial security and a certain amount of clout in the department, so it is very important to connect the past with the present.  We act a certain role because it pleases our alums – things such as keeping a high team grade-point average, being concerned with our appearance by wearing coats and ties when we travel off-campus and going out of our way to be friendly and thank our alums when they come by the campus.  These are all positive things that create pride in our group and please our alums and parents.


So what it all boils down to is marketing your program.  First in recruiting, to get talent to our team, and then to the squad, so as to get maximum performances during the season.  It only begins there; you need to sell it to the athletic director, the student body and the local media.  If there is no enthusiasm for swimming on your campus, you are not going to be able to get anyone to take you seriously when you need to get something done.


The way we structure our team at Cal is as follows: We begin every year with a single group.  We emphasize technique and dryland fitness along with an orientation to the Cal way of doing things.  Gradually we break into two groups – 200 yards and down and 200 yards and up.  We operate with an individual medley philosophy of training.  We use a cyclical training system, which takes three days, twice through each week.  Eventually we break into three groups – long distance, short distance and strokes, plus Individual Medley.  After the first month, the groups will normally do a short warm-up together and then split into the three training groups.  A separate coach is responsible for each group.  They have control of the water training and some of the dryland.  The sprinters will do much more weight and dryland than the other groups.  The distance group will do medicine balls, body blades, rowing machines and stationary bicycles.  The stroke-individual medley group does some of each in a little different way.


Since the seventies, our dryland program has been built around power, with power equaling strength plus speed.  We are not so interested in building muscles as in building the speed of the nerve impulses to the muscles.  We lift from four to six weeks to establish a basic strength level, and then folks move onto our speed circuit to strengthen the neural circuitry in our body.  This way, when we want to swim faster dm we have ever gone before, we won’t overload the circuits.  We also devote a couple of sessions each week to the mental side of our sport.  Two of the required readings for the Cal team this summer were “Sacred Hoops” by Phil Jackson and “Inner Tennis” by Tim Gallmey.  The old saying that we will get what we think about most of the time is very true.  I do not believe that we communicate nearly enough with our coaches and athletes.  If you aren’t selling the program and asking questions and listing to the answers, I don’t see how you can expect to be successful. No one else is going to do it for you.  So if it’s going to be, it’s up to me.




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